How I camp in my car during road trips

The plan was simple. With my girlfriend vacationing overseas with family, I’d hit the road and visit some places scattered around the West that I needed to mark off of my various travel quests. And along the way, I’d also visit some online friends near Las Vegas, Boise, Northern California, and Carson City. The trip would require quite a bit of driving—I guesstimated roughly 3,500 miles—and I needed to squeeze it into a short 10-day window to make it work.

roadtrip map
Just a quick 3,881-mile solo roadtrip to some relatively obscure BLM-managed public lands…

And as a trip we hadn’t exactly budgeted for, I’d also need to keep expenses to a minimum. So that meant two things: I’d have to be very efficient in my travel days, and I’d basically need to use my vehicle like an RV.

I have done a number of fly-and-camp trips before, but for this trip, I wouldn’t be camping as much as living in my vehicle. Being able to sleep in Sam the Subie instead of having to set up a tent would give me the most flexibility in where I stayed each night. That was an important cost-saver, as it allowed me to avoid hotels and campground fees and either disperse camp on public lands, stay in a friend’s driveway, or even catch some sleep in a rest area or parking lot. And since I wasn’t sure how the weather would turn out, it’d also ensure that I had a warm place to sleep for the night—one where I could avoid the unrelenting wind I encountered the entire trip.

The video below will show you the main items I brought and where I kept them in the vehicle. Since I was driving my own vehicle, I could bring a few optional items I normally wouldn’t bring on a fly-and-camp trip—most notably, a large foam mattress topper and a full-sized cooler. I also brought a hefty amount of food and snacks, as evidenced by the huge black tote bin.

The setup I used here worked great on my trip. While the video explains quite a bit, I’ll go into more detail below on some additional topics.

What to bring and where to put it

When I’m traveling on a road trip like this, I prefer to keep my setup as simple and organized as possible throughout the trip. That means thinking about where everything goes before I hit the road, making sure that the things I’ll need to access—either while I’m traveling or when I’m in bed—are easily accessible. That’s why I try to keep everything in a container. So food and snacks go into one bin, and the cooking stuff goes into another. That makes it much easier to stay organized. The main exception to this is my clothes. I prefer to have clothes stored in batches so that it’s easier to pick out what I need without having to struggle to extract an entire duffel bag.

Keeping it simple and organized also means bringing a bit less and fewer “maybe I’ll need this” sort of items.. The fewer items you bring, the fewer things you’ll have to manage during your trip. In this case, I brought two things that I definitely didn’t end up needing: my backpacking chair and my multi-use camping bucket. Both items were small and didn’t clutter things up, so I tossed them in even though I wasn’t sure if I’d use them. And, like just about every time, I was right. Because I didn’t spend any time at an actual campsite, I never made a campfire—and therefore, I never needed the chair. When I ate, I simply sat in the backseat or at a picnic table. And I assumed that the bucket would come in handy for things like washing up and doing dishes. I really didn’t need to do much of those tasks either, given the more frequent showers I snagged and how few dishes I dirtied.

Food and cooking

In order to save money, I planned on snacking for breakfast and lunch, and then cooking a simple dinner like soup, chili, or a grilled cheese sandwich. I also assumed that I’d occasionally get some cheap fast food, especially if I was tired and still had a long drive before bed. And I also hoped that I’d try a handful of breweries along the way when time permitted.

As it turned out, I spent quite a bit more time hanging out with friends during the trip than I had anticipated, including joining them for some home-cooked meals. And since I managed to add in a number of additional destinations, I would often arrive to my intended campsite pretty late, opting to snack instead of cook in what were often some rather fierce winds.

In the end, I managed to stay within budget, even though I cooked far less than I originally intended. And I also managed to sneak in stops at nine craft breweries, too.

barrel 10 flight
Brewery stops are always among my favorite road trip stops.

The not-cooking strategy

But just because my plan this trip was to cook doesn’t mean yours has to be. While one of the biggest benefits of camping is saving money on hotels and eating out, that doesn’t mean that you have to cook every time you camp on a road trip. In fact, sometimes you camp just so that you can afford that fun night out on the town, as I did when I brewery-hopped around Boise halfway through my trip. And you can still save a lot of money by sleeping in your car while eating most of your meals out. Indeed, that reduces quite a bit of the gear you need to bring—though I still recommend bringing a cooler for cold beverages and plenty of snacks for the road.

Finding places to camp

Aside from one night at a friend’s house, I didn’t preplan where I’d sleep each night. But because most of my primary destinations were BLM Conservation Lands areas, I knew that I’d have quite a few dispersed camping opportunities. I also knew that there were a number of developed campgrounds around that would likely have space if I needed them. And because I was sleeping in my car, I could also get some shut-eye at a rest area, truck stop, or even a Wal-Mart parking lot if I absolutely needed to.

pony express campsite
Just a 1/4 mile away from Hwy 93, this campsite was the perfect place to avoid the lights and bustle of the rest area.

The first night I ended up stopping at a rest area right along the Pony Express Trail in northern Nevada to use the restroom. Since I kinda wanted to check out the trail the next morning and was already tired, I decided that I might as well sleep there. But boy, for being such a remote place, it sure was a busy rest area—and given the layout of the parking lot, it was hard to block out all of the rest area lights and approaching headlights.

After about an hour, I decided to find another spot. I hopped on Google Maps, turned on satellite view, and took a look around the area. It took just a handful of seconds to find a better spot about a quarter mile away, and probably about 90 seconds to drive there. It’s a whole lot easier to move your campsite to a better location when you don’t have to pack up a tent. Once I relocated, I slept great under the dark and quiet sky. When you’re traveling in the West, there’s often a good campsite not too far away—especially during the shoulder season.

There are a number of apps and websites you can use to locate possible places to camp. When looking for dispersed camping sites, I usually start by scouring a state atlas or gazetteer, then when I’ve narrowed down my target area, I switch to Google Maps satellite view and zoom in to identify specific sites that might work. In addition, I also regularly consult FreeCampsites.net, Campendium, Boondocking.org, and the iOverlander app for sites that others have already identified. When I’m looking for developed campgrounds, I check recreation.gov, Reserve America, or just google “campgrounds in my area,” though those search results tend to include RV parks. Allstays is a highly rated app you might also want to check out.

Driving versus sleeping mode

While most of my stuff stays in the same spot throughout my trip, I do move a few items when I shift to sleep mode. When I’m driving, I like having the passenger seat free for things like maps, a snack I’ve pulled out of my food bin, or any other items I might need quick access to. But when I get to my destination for the night, I move any items that had occupied the rear seat (usually my food bin and my computer backpack) up to the passenger seat. This gives me a completely empty rear seat right next to my bed.

An empty rear seat

Having this rear seat available is great. Once I get the car set up for the night, this tends to be where I spend my time before I lay down to sleep. I can easily change clothes, watch a movie on my tablet, put on my shoes, snack or eat dinner, work on my laptop, scour maps while I revise the next day’s itinerary, and so forth—all while escaping the elements and not drawing any attention to the vehicle. Importantly, it’s also the easiest way to get in and out of bed, something you’ll want to consider if your vehicle doesn’t have an easy way to open the rear gate from the interior. I just climb up onto the bed and swing my legs around. When I’m sleeping, the seat conveniently converts into a handy bedside table where I place my glasses, headlamp, and phone for quick retrieval in the middle of the night.

Parking for the night

When I park for the night, the first thing I do is decide on how I want to position the vehicle. The primary considerations here are blocking any annoying lights, and pointing into the wind. If there’s any annoying light, I try to point the car towards it so that the sunshade I put in my front window blocks it from shining into the rest of the car. If it’s windy, I often position the car into the wind, which cuts down on the vehicle shaking or the windows whistling.

blm campsite
This dispersed campsite near Fossil Falls was great—but boy, that early morning sun was bright. Thank goodness I had a blanket to cover my face in the morning.

Once I have the vehicle pointed the right direction, I put on the emergency brake to limit any rocking when I’m moving around in the vehicle. I transfer the items from the rear seat to the front seat and get my bed ready.

I then put on the mesh window coverings, always covering both of the rear windows. These are the perfect solution to keeping annoying bugs out, but they also help shield bright lights and even light rain. If it’s hot out or I’m worried about it raining, I’ll add them to the front windows too. I then roll down the windows to the desired level. If it’s cold out, that might just be an inch or two for both of the rear windows. If it’s hot and I want a lot more airflow, then I’ll roll all four windows all the way down. This is something you can play around with, but you’ll want to keep at least one window cracked during the night.

I usually keep the car keys easily accessible on my center console and lock the doors when I’m ready for bed. I like to keep the drivers seat completely clear so I can quickly hop in and move the car quickly if I need to. When I’m camping in my own car, I always bring a full size pillow and also a cheap fleece blanket to cover my face in the night if the breeze is cold or to block out any unexpected light, like a bright moon moving across the night sky.

The entire process of shifting from driving to sleeping mode takes less than two minutes—much quicker than setting up a tent. When I wake up in the morning, I get dressed and shift it back before hitting the road again.

Toilets and showers

Probably the most popular question I get about these types of road trips is how and/or where I use the restroom and shower. For the most part, the answer is pretty easy. Except in some pretty remote areas, there’s nearly always a restroom available somewhere—whether at a rest area, gas station, fast food restaurant, or even a campground or wilderness trailhead. In the event that’s not the case, I have a trowel and toilet paper. If you want something a bit more convenient, there are a number of other options, including luggable loo and other portable toilets, female urination devices, and so forth—though none of these really works inside the vehicle.

cowboy camp
I originally stopped here to use the pit toilet, but ended up camping here later that night. Keep an eye open for possible camping spots while you’re out-and-about.

As for showers, I knew that I’d be staying with a friend about halfway through the trip, so I was guaranteed at least one shower. Beyond that, I knew I could either pop into a truck stop or developed campground and pay for one, so I came prepared with my normal public shower kit (sandals, quick dry towels, shampoo/body soap, and a plastic bag to keep my stuff dry). But in a pinch, I could also rig up something shower-like on top of my car if it was warm enough out, or make sure to get to the hot springs on my itinerary, or just make due with a “backpackers shower,” also known as a wet wipes bath. I could have brought my camp shower, but it just didn’t seem like I’d need it. There are a lot of other showering solutions available out there, but I’ll wait to tackle those in a future post.

In the end, I got a bit lucky on the trip and ended up having access to a shower at each place where I visited an online friend. And because we ended up having a meal together, I also ended up cooking far less than I had expected. It’s great when things like this happen—but on trips like these, I always try to be self-contained as possible.

Sleeping in a rental car

Not taking your own vehicle on a road trip? Don’t worry, you can pull off much of this in a rental car, too. Because not all vehicles have seats that fold flat, however, you’ll have to manage to snag a vehicle that does. I’ve had the best luck with full size SUVs and minivans with stow-and-go seating. Either way, don’t drive off the lot until you have one that will work for you.

Here’s a video of what I brought when I camped in a rental car a few years back. The video quality isn’t great, but it’s still useful in understanding what items I brought with me.

You should also check out my extensive post on travel camping, which outlines which camping items I bring when I “fly-and-camp.”

Some other tips

  • You don’t need a mattress set up as stupidly comfy as mine. Most of the time I sleep in my vehicle, I just use a simple backpacking sleeping pad.
  • Not all Wal-Marts allow overnight parking. Here’s a listing of recent reports.
  • Passing by a national park unit on your trip? Remember that many of the visitor center restrooms stay open all night.
  • I use a pool noodle slice to cover up the hook that the rear seat attaches to. Trust me, this is preferable to bashing your hip against it when you shift in your sleep.
pool noodle
This simple quick fix has worked well.
  • Headlamps fit great on the back of headrests.
  • If you don’t want to wake up at sunrise, consider where the sun will be rising. I use the Peak Finder app to determine this, but you can also just make an educated guess. Same with a full moon, which can seem incredibly bright when you’re trying to sleep.
  • Have a membership to a national gym chain? Well, that’s a great place to grab a shower while traveling.
  • Too hot? Too cold? You can always turn on the vehicle for awhile to cool off or warm up.
  • I like bringing a small pack towel in with me when I stop at public restrooms so I can dry off after rinsing my face when there are just hand dryers available.
  • Not a great sleeper? Bring some ear plugs to help drown out weird noises. You can also bring a sleep mask to help shield bright lights from other campsites, vehicles, or lampposts.
  • If you want to add some additional privacy or black-out those weirdly shaped rear windows, try using some reflectix and trim it to fit. If you’re planning on stealth camping, spray mount some black fabric to one or both of the sides. These also work great for insulting the vehicle and you can store them flat under your mattress when not in use.
  • These headrest hooks are quite handy. I use these frequently throughout the day when I’m on the road, and later at night, I hang a water bottle from one attached to the drivers headrest so I can easily find it when I’m in bed.
  • Don’t forget these important tips on making ice last longer in your cooler.

What I wish I knew before starting my national parks quest

Travel quests are among the most powerful ways to get yourself out more. My personal national parks quest—visiting all 417 national park units in the country—has been the driving force for the vast majority of my own travel. And it’s been one of the most impactful endeavors in my life. I firmly believe that if … Read more

How to keep track of your hikes using Google Forms

There are dozens of ways to keep track of your hikes, from relying on your gps track history to simply writing it down in a trusty notebook. Each method has its own benefits and downsides.

I used to keep track of my hikes by writing the date and the names of my hiking companions at the bottom of the page in whichever hiking guidebook I was using. It worked well enough back in the 1990s, when guidebooks and magazines were the primary sources of trail information. But now that trail databases have migrated to the internet, that old system is only occasionally applicable. I’ve also run out of room on the pages of my favorite local trails that I hike frequently, or upgraded to newer editions and abandoned my old notes.

I now keep track of my hikes by creating a simple Google Form that I’ve bookmarked on my phone. It’s free, easy to set up, and you can customize it to track whatever information you want. Best of all, it’s always right there in your pocket when you need it, and the data is easy to use and store well into the future.

Why keep track of your hikes

If you’re just a casual just-once-in-a-blue-moon hiker, then it probably doesn’t matter if you track your hikes or not. But if you hike more regularly than that, I’d recommend you start doing it. This is especially true if you have a personal hiking goal like the #52HikeChallenge. It’s a quick little habit to start that you might really appreciate having access to later.

In addition to keeping track of your personal goals, a hiking log can make it easier to figure out which trails you’ve already hiked and with whom, including any special or noteworthy details that you won’t find in guidebooks or online trail descriptions. I particularly like keeping notes on memorable things that happened during the hike, such as stumbling across some pottery sherds, or an interesting animal encounter, or what day the wildflowers started to bloom that year. Since you customize exactly what you keep track of it, you can also include whatever tidbits you don’t want to forget.

Hiking logs also serve as a helpful historical record of your hiking accomplishments. They can be used to calculate and analyze statistics such as how many miles you’ve hiked this year, how many times your pooch joined you on the trail, or how much faster you hike that local quad-burning trail now that you’ve gotten into better shape.

Tracking hikes for the #52HikeChallenge

The 52 Hike Challenge is a great idea, but their tracking spreadsheet isn’t the easiest to use on a phone. As a fellow challenge hiker, I find that a simple Google Form makes entering my hike each week much, much easier. Even better, I get to capture more than what the 52 Hike Challenge tracking spreadsheet does, which makes the log that much more useful to me.

Benefits of using Google Forms

There are a variety of mobile apps out there that you could use to track your hikes—many of which include useful features like GPS tracks and trail maps. But as new apps are released, feature sets shift, or subscription fees change, many hikers find themselves switching between apps or using them for only a subset of the trails they hike. For instance, I’ll rarely fire up Gaia GPS for a local hike in the nearby Phoenix Mountains Preserve, as I know exactly where I am at all times. On the flipside, I probably won’t use a GPS app on my phone to track a long day hike in the Superstition Wilderness due to concerns about my phone’s battery life. Another problem lies in trying to export your data from many of these apps; it’s not always an easy task.

The end result is a mishmash of hiking data siloed in multiple apps, or missing entirely. But with your own custom Google Form, you can solve many of these issues by simply logging your data in the form after each hike, no matter which GPS app you might use to track your route. Or, if you didn’t use one but know the basic details of the hike you completed (such as the distance and elevation gain), it’s easy to enter that data later—something that’s impossible to do with many of the leading hiking apps. Sometimes, simple is just plain better.

Best of all, it’s free and all you need to get started is a browser and a google account. And since it dumps the data into a basic spreadsheet, it’s rather easy to analyze the data. That allows you to do things like quickly total up your cumulative hiking miles for the year, figure out how many feet of elevation you climbed, or total up how many different trails you hiked during the year. And depending on which fields you include, you could also analyze all sorts of other interesting tidbits, as well. Since it’s all contained in a simple spreadsheet, that data is easily transportable too, so you don’t have to worry about future software incompatibility.

Which fields to include

You have a lot of options here, so spend a few minutes to decide what items you’d like to keep track of. If you’re on the fence about something, my recommendation is to include it on the form and make sure it’s not a required answer. If you later decide to stop logging data for that item, you can simply ignore or delete that field when you review the spreadsheet later.

Here are some possible options of data to collect—you’ll need to decide for yourself which ones to include.

  • Date of your hike
  • Name of the trail(s) you used
  • Mileage hiked
  • Elevation gain
  • Duration (how long did it take you to hike?)
  • With whom did you hike?
    • Was this an organized group hike? (you can even use a drop-down menu for your common hiking groups)
    • Did you lead this hike?
    • Did your dog(s) join you?
  • Did you record a GPS track?
    • Link to the GPS track
  • Your personal rating of the hike (use the linear scale field type; keep in mind that you can create multiple rating questions, each on a different aspect of the hike, if you’d like to get detailed)
  • How tired you were hiking the trail (or maybe how many times you had to stop to take a breather)
  • Links to photos
  • Links to blog post
  • Wildlife encountered
  • Type of trail (e.g., out-and-back, loop, lollipop, etc)
  • Location type (such as national park, wilderness area, state park, or city preserve)
  • Where to find hike details (guidebook, link to website, etc)
  • Rating on the “Fun Scale
  • Notes (capture any other details in this section)

How to use it on your phone

As I mentioned in the screencast, I strongly recommend that you add the form as a shortcut to your phone’s home screen. A hiking log is only as good as the data you enter, so you want it easily accessible so you can get to it whenever you remember to log your hike.

The first step is to get the link to your phone’s browser. There are a number of ways to do this, such emailing it to yourself, typing into your mobile browser manually, or using a universal clipboard. Once you have the link on your phone, it’s a breeze to add the shortcut.

Keep track of other types of adventures

You don’t have to use this solely for tracking your hikes—you can create forms to track any of your other adventures or outings, too. It wouldn’t be hard to create separate forms to track things like how many nights you camped, what trails you mountain biked, or what lakes or rivers you paddled. I’ve even used google forms to get track of hikes I want to do, or at least to add to my adventure map.

Get started!

Be sure to check out the screencast above to learn how to design your hiking log. Then hop on over to forms.google.com to get started, and let us know in the comments if you have any other suggested uses or fields that others might want to copy.

Backcountry badassery, or an immersive experience?

Since so much of the outdoor media seems to focus on being faster, setting new records, tackling increasingly insane distances, and generally pushing the human body further than ever before, I wanted to remind you that you can, indeed, hike your own hike.

Exploring the Sears Point petroglyph site

“Hmm. Are you sure it’s out here?” she asked.

To be honest, it didn’t look very promising, at least not yet.

“Yep, it’s up ahead a few more miles,” I responded, in a tone that likely overstated my own confidence.

We had already driven an hour from Phoenix to Gila Bend, then another hour west along Interstate 8, then turned off at an exit to seemingly nowhere, jogged back east a mile along the access road, then turned north on an unremarkable dirt road impossibly named Avenue 76½ E. Along this rough-at-times road, we had passed two desert squatter communities, an out-of-place boat shipwrecked on the top of a small hill, and miles of seemingly barren desert.

Some skepticism was probably to be expected. After all, I hadn’t exactly explained where we were going; I had just said that we’d find some rock art when we got there.

As it turns out, we were indeed on the correct road. A few miles further ahead was the Sears Point petroglyph site, an array of prehistoric and historic petroglyphs carved into a basalt ridge overlooking the floodplain of the once mighty Gila River. This is BLM land, a site well known by those who hunt rock art, but not a destination where you’ll find many tourists.

Finally, the road crested a small ridge, dipped towards the dry riverbed in the distance, and we could see our destination ahead. Ribbons of sandy driving routes spiderwebbed around tamarisk and mesquite clumps that dotted the lowland. I was glad to have my Subaru as we sloshed through deep pockets of sand and gravel, maintaining enough speed around the corners to avoid getting stuck. And just like that, we arrived at a patch of dirt sporting two informational kiosks and some carsonite signs indicating the road’s end. We parked, stepped out of the subie, and immediately scanned the butte for the first sign of rock art.

“There’s some over there,” I said, nearly in code, and pointed towards a prominent panel gazing down upon us.

We grabbed some cold water from the cooler, donned our daypacks, and scrambled up towards the first panel with cameras in hand. And so began our rather impromptu visit to Sears Point.

The Sears Point petroglyph site

Archaeologists consider Sears Point to be one of the most significant rock art sites in the Southwest. In addition to more than 2,000 rock art panels incorporating nearly 10,000 petroglyph elements, the area contains a number of geoglyphs and other archaeological and historical features.

Simply put, there’s a lot to see out here. And you’ll need to do some exploring to see it.

Sears Point is just one of several other similar sites along the Gila River, including Quail Point, Hummingbird Point, and Oatman Point just a bit upstream. The only site signed from the interstate is Painted Rock, a now-defunct state park that’s since reverted to BLM management. I won’t get into what you’ll find at each of these sites, how to get to them, or what makes them special, but a quick google search will answer most questions one would have.

It’s important to note that while Sears Point is a named archaeological district, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is managed as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern by BLM, sadly none of these adds sufficient protection for this site or its neighboring ones.

The campaign to protect the Great Bend of the Gila

As a result, several organizations—led by Archaeology Southwest and the National Trust for Historic Preservation—have been campaigning to protect Sears Point and other important archaeological and historical sites upstream as the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument. It’s a good idea and the cultural resources here are definitely worthy of such a designation.

The short video below explains a bit more about the cultural heritage this campaign seeks to protect.

Some tips if you plan on visiting

  • You’ll want an AWD or 4WD vehicle to drive to the parking area, though don’t attempt it if it’s rained recently. You could probably make the drive with a 2WD high clearance vehicle if you stopped short of the deepest sand, which starts around here, roughly a mile from the main petroglyph panels. Either way, be prepared to extricate yourself if you get stuck no matter what you’re driving.
  • Don’t go in the summer heat, and be prepared with water and shade. You’ll spend your entire visit scrambling over rocks while the sun beats relentlessly down on you, so please act accordingly. If it’s warm out, you might want to consider gloves to protect your hands from hot rocks.
  • If you don’t have much time, check out the rock art panels near the top of the butte to the right. The largest panels and most easily accessible glyphs are found in that area, which will require some scrambling to get up to the faint trail that connects them. If you can, spend some time exploring the entire area, including the tops of the basalt mesas—there are thousands of petroglyphs, geoglyphs, rock alignments, and other artifacts in walking distance of your car. Stay alert to your surroundings and bring a gps to help you find your way back.
  • Photographing sometimes faint petroglyphs on shiny basalt in the glaring sun can be a challenge, so keep this in mind as you plan your arrival and departure times. A circular polarizing filter can also be helpful in reducing shine and helping the rock art stand out better. An umbrella can both help keep you cool and shade smaller glyphs for better photographs. I wish I had considered these things before my visit.
  • Practice Leave No Trace principles, and don’t touch the petroglyphs or do anything else that might impact the site. Once damaged, we can never get these resources back.
  • Want to learn more about lesser-known archaeological sites the public hasn’t ever heard of? Here’s the very best way to do that.
  • Do some research before you go, especially on other nearby sites, if you’d like to make a longer day out of it. There are many accessible places to explore in the surrounding area and within the Great Bend of the Gila proposal area.
This entire region of Arizona is worth exploring—and protecting. Sears Point is located near the far western end of the proposed national monument.

How to get there

From Gila Bend, Arizona, drive west on I-8 towards Yuma for roughly 30 mins to exit 78, Spot Road. At the end of the off ramp, turn north and then right on the frontage road. Head back east for about 1 mile to Avenue 76½E, then go north along the dirt road for about 7 miles. When you hit the sandy wash, stay on the most used route and aim for the low buttes to the west. You’ll find a small dirt parking area and two kiosks; park here and explore the area on foot.

If you happened to miss them, scroll back up to check out the sliding photo gallery from the trip. Click on one to enter fullscreen mode.

Travel Camping: how to fly and camp in a rental car

The cheapest way to travel

One of the best ways to save money while traveling is to camp instead of staying in a hotel. Some people might think that this strategy is limited to destinations you can drive to. But it’s not. With a little bit of planning, you can save big on your trip by flying your trusty camping gear and picking up a few items along the way. I call this fly-and-camp strategy travel camping.

Here’s what you need to know to give it a try.

But, wait…

“I don’t want to waste money on things I’m barely going to use.”

That’s often the first response I get when someone first hears about travel camping. Yes, you will likely buy some things on the trip that you won’t use all of, or that you’ll only use a few times before discarding. For budget travelers, it can feel especially weird to pick out a cooler that you only intend on using for a week or so. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make financial sense.

After all, substituting just a single night of camping in place of a hotel stay will undoubtedly save far more cash than you’ll spend on any items you’ll have to discard later. When you add together several nights—and especially if you include cooking some meals at camp—then you’re suddenly saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Don’t take my word for it; after reading this post, do some sample math for your next trip and see how much you’d save by travel camping. We could all use some more travel money, right?

To be fair, travel camping isn’t always the best choice for your trip. For instance, if you’re heading to the Sonoran Desert in the summer, I’d recommend staying in a hotel with air conditioning instead of sweltering in a tent (a free tip from this Arizona native). Similarly, I’d much rather pay for a hotel room than camp in a Minnesota winter.

And if your primary destination is a major metropolis, your camping options might be pretty limited or less convenient—though sometimes you can be surprised. For instance, there are camping options just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, campgrounds within a 10-minute drive of the major Scottsdale resorts, and plenty of “this-will-do-for-the-night” private campgrounds and rv parks at the edge of most large cities.

Your gear bag

The first thing you’ll need to get started with travel camping is some sort of gear bag to carry everything you’re bringing with you. I happen to use a large rolling duffel bag for this, but you have quite a few options here. The key is to use something that meets your airline’s baggage limits so you don’t have to pay any oversized baggage fees (typically triggered by anything that exceeds 62 inches when you add together the bag’s length, width, and height).

Similarly, you’ll want to make sure that this bag doesn’t get too heavy to avoid overweight charges, usually bags weighing more than 50 lbs. Depending on what you’re bringing, that might mean strategically carrying some heavier items in your carry-on to help better distribute the weight. Likewise, some items might simply fit better in a standard carry-on suitcase than a large duffel bag, so keep that in mind when you’re packing too.

I usually try to check a single gear bag of camping gear and stashing my usual carry-on suitcase in the overhead bin. I also carry a daypack as my so-called personal item (be sure that this meets your airline’s size limits, which seem to be getting smaller and smaller). If you plan on travel camping often, you might want to consider buying a large rolling duffel for your gear bag; it’s the easiest to carry around the airport and to your rental car. I’ve gone years without one but recently upgraded and it was worth the expense.

gear bag and luggage
All packed up and ready for a travel camping trip—in this case, to Hawaii.

What’s allowed in checked vs. carry-on luggage

Not sure what items you’re allowed to fly with? Below is a list of camping-related items and whether or not they’re allowed in checked or carry-on luggage. Please note that these rules can change regularly, so please double-check the TSA list before your trip. Also keep in mind the liquids rule for carry-on baggage when you’re packing.

What camping gear can you bring on the plane?

Some items are allowed only in your checked luggage while others can only be in carry-on baggage; a few items aren’t allowed in either checked or carry-on luggage. For more details on each type of item, check out the links I’ve provided.

Sleeping arrangements

The first thing to decide when planning your trip is your sleeping situation. Will you bring a tent? Will you rent an SUV or a minivan that you can sleep in the back of? Are you a hammock sleeper? You’ll also want to consider where you’ll be sleeping. For instance, will you be staying in developed campgrounds, dispersed camping on public lands, or stealth camping in a city?

The answers to these questions will help determine what gear you’ll need. For instance, if you’ll be sleeping in a vehicle, then you don’t need to bring your tent. And if you’re staying in a developed campground, then you’ll likely have a picnic table that you can use for both cooking and sitting at. Consider what items are important for you to have given the circumstances you’ll likely find yourself in.

Will you be cooking?

The next big question you’ll want to answer is whether or not you will be cooking any meals. Cooking your own meals usually saves you a ton of money while traveling, but it also requires additional gear and takes time away from other activities.

Not cooking

Even if you decide to eat out for all of your meals, you’ll still save hundreds of dollars by camping. Just be sure that you’ll be near appropriate restaurants during your expected mealtimes—especially if you have any dietary restrictions. You don’t want to find yourself hungry and in a remote area after hours with no place to eat.

You might want to consider how you could supplement your meals with snacks or beverages to save additional cash. For instance, even if I’m not planning on bringing a stove and cooking during a trip, I might still grab some food and drinks to have with me. I sometimes pick up some sort of small cooler (even if it’s a cheap “keep-groceries-cold-on-the-drive-home” style) and toss in some sodas, water, beer, and few snacks—just so I have some options if I get hungry or for when stopping for food isn’t convenient.

Cooking

Being prepared to cook at least some meals provides you with the most flexibility on your trip. After all, you can always grab a bite at a restaurant if you’re feeling lazy or if you run across a place that’s too good to pass up. You’ll want to do some pre-planning before you hop on the plane, though. First, you’ll likely need a few basic items: a stove, a cooler, pots/pans, plates/bowls, and utensils. Depending on your trip and what you already own, you could bring all of these, buy them all at your destination, or a combination of the two. I tend to pack gear I already own that’s easy to bring on the plane, and then buy the remainder when I arrive.

What to bring and what to buy there

While I own plenty of compact and lightweight backpacking gear, I usually bring slightly bulkier car camping gear when I do these sorts of trips. For instance, I prefer to bring my Coleman single burner stove that uses one of those ubiquitous green 1 lb propane canisters over my much smaller backpacking stove that uses a harder-to-find isobutane canister. While the larger stove is a bit bigger to pack, its fuel canisters can be found at just about any grocery store, gas station, or Walmart. It also cooks a bit more evenly and is more stable while holding a heavy pot. The same goes for my cookware; it’s usually my weekend car camping set, not my lightweight titanium backpacking pot. Keep in mind that this is just personal preference, so choose the gear that works best for you and your trip. [Update: we’ve recently bought this stove, which we paired with a converter so it can use the 1lb propane canisters—this is now our preferred travel camping system].

Plates, bowls, and utensils are items that you can either decide to buy there—you can usually pick up disposable items for relatively cheap—or to bring with you, depending on space considerations. Remember that if you’re cooking, you’ll also need to consider how you’ll be doing dishes, too (this is where disposable items are especially useful). You can often find free condiment packets, salt & pepper packets, napkins, and plastic cutlery at most big gas stations, grocery store deli counters, or fast food restaurants. I often snag some of these instead of buying large quantities I’ll never use up during a trip. However, I do bring some smaller and less common items (like a particular seasoning I like on my sandwiches) along with me so I don’t have to buy a large container of something I’ll use just a bit of.

You can’t bring stove fuel on the plane, so plan on buying a canister when you arrive. You’ll also need ice and a cooler, too. You can usually pick up a cheap plastic cooler for about $15-20 or so; I usually grab either a 28 qt or 48 qt size, depending on how much food and beverages I plan on having at any one time. I also pick up a cheap plastic bin to keep my food dry inside the cooler. My general preference is to buy just a few days’ worth of food at a time instead of plotting out every meal for the trip in advance; I always seem to end up with quite a bit extra food/drinks when I try to buy it all at the start. Also don’t forget to grab a gallon or two of water. You can usually refill these at campgrounds when you run low.

The cheaper (and less enviro-friendly) styrofoam coolers are also an option may people consider, though they come with quite a few downsides. First, you’ll need a lot more ice to keep your food cold, as the lid doesn’t close very well. They can also be a bit top-heavy, so you’ll want to brace them in the vehicle so they don’t tip over. Unfortunately, they also squeak quite a bit (especially when braced in), which quickly drives everyone in the vehicle nuts. No matter which route you choose, check out my post on how to make ice last longer in your cooler for some useful tips.

I do my best to buy only simple, easy-to-prepare meals that don’t require many a long list of ingredients to make. Items that can do double-duty in more than one meal are great too. For instance, sliced cheddar cheese works great in both grilled cheese sandwiches and as a snack when paired with pepperoni and crackers. Items that don’t need to be kept especially cold—like the aforementioned cheddar cheese and pepperoni—make it a bit easier to manage while you’re on the road. I generally recommend sticking to foods and meals that you’re already used to making and that you enjoy eating. It’s never fun when dinner isn’t as appetizing as you imagined it’d be, or worse when doesn’t quite agree with you and you’re stuck running repeatedly to the campground toilet.

north cascades campsite
You don’t need much to enjoy travel camping, as we recently did here in North Cascades National Park.

Here’s exactly what gear I’ve brought on trips

Every trip is a bit different with its own unique gear needs. In the collapsible sections below, I’ve listed the gear I packed for three very different travel camping trips. The first was a road trip through the Pacific Northwest where we brought quite a few luxury items. That’s much different than our trip to Hawaii, which featured just the basics for sleeping at a campsite. The last trip—a solo, fast-paced but frugal road trip through the South—sat somewhat in the middle of the other two. I’ve listed these to provide a bit of context into the various pieces of gear you might bring for each kind of trip. Keep in mind that your own travel or camping style may require a much different packing list than what I brought.

Roadtripping the Pacific Northwest

This trip featured a combination of hotel stays (3 nights in Seattle early in the trip, and then a night in Bend in the middle) along with 7 camping nights scattered across Washington. We had opted for a cheap economy rental car, so we would be sleeping in our tent. Our schedule was rather variable—some places we’d just be quickly crashing for the night, while others we’d stay for three nights and spend a lot more time at the campsite. We were also a bit worried about possible rain, wanted to ensure that we could shower at camp, and expected to spend several nights enjoying an evening campfire. As a result, we brought quite a few “luxury” items that I normally don’t bring on travel camping trips. Because of the crowds expected for the impending solar eclipse, we also reserved sites in developed campgrounds for each night we weren’t in a hotel. Each of them had flush toilets, but only one listed shower facilities.

backpacking chairs firepit
Backpacking chairs are great for those nights when you’re planning to enjoy an adult beverage or two around a campfire.

The main video above provides some additional context and reasoning for the items we brought. Here’s the list:

Island-hopping around Hawaii

This trip was evenly split between hotel nights and camping, which saved us well over a thousand dollars due to Hawaii’s expensive hotel rates. We decided to skip cooking and eat out every meal on this trip for two main reasons. First, we were bringing all of our snorkeling gear, so we weren’t sure it’d all fit in our normal gear bag and didn’t want to pay for an additional checked bag. We had several inter-island flights, so not only would we have to pay for that extra bag on each flight segment, but we’d also have to continually buy additional supplies (like a cooler and stove fuel) between flights. This just seemed like too much of hassle.

Because the climate in Hawaii is so mild, we skipped warm sleeping bags and instead brought a $23 lightweight full/queen comforter from Ikea to share. It was tightly rolled in plastic, so it was easy to pack for the flight there. But we weren’t sure if we’d be able to get it packed again once we used it, so we were willing to donate it instead of bringing it home. With some compression straps, however, we managed to make it fit and we’ve used it on several other road trips since then. Sometimes, picking up some additional gear is worth ensuring you have a great experience.

As you can see from our gear list, you really don’t need much to pull off a few nights of camping—especially if you aren’t going to be cooking.

olowalu campsite
A campsite with featuring your own private snorkeling beach and new toilets/showers at only $20 a night on Maui? SOLD!!

Quick note about where we camped

During this trip, we primarily camped at Camp Olowalu on Maui. They have recently renovated their campground and installed some very nice outdoor showers and toilets. We loved the place—we even had our own private beach that we could snorkel off! Best of all, it cost $20 a night instead of the $280 we would have paid in the city. To be honest, we actually enjoyed the campsite more than any of the hotels we stayed in and should have booked several additional nights there. Did I mention that we hung out with some sea turtles right off the campsite?

A frugal road trip around the Deep South

Last spring I did a 9-day multi-state road trip around the Deep South to mark off a handful of national park units and other attractions I hadn’t yet visited. With an expensive trip to the US Virgin Islands & Puerto Rico coming up just two weeks later, I really needed to pull this trip off as cheaply as possible. I was able to pick up my flights using airline miles and had one free hotels.com night stay to use, so I’d need to camp the rest of the time to make my budget.

Because this would be a solo trip and I had an aggressive itinerary of destinations to visit, I knew that it’d be go-go-go the entire trip. I also didn’t have a set itinerary planned out in advance, so I’d need to look for a campsite on the fly. I usually prefer to save my longer drives for after sunset in order to maximize what I can see during the day, so it seemed likely that I’d be arriving in camp late each night after driving several hours from my last destination.

So while I brought several items intended to comfortably pass the evening hours at camp—the hammock, tent, and backpacking chair, for instance—I fully expected that I’d be arriving late and leaving early. On this trip, camping was primarily just a way to save money on hotels. Because I got a great deal on a large SUV for the trip, I mostly planned on sleeping in the back of the vehicle. This would allow me to avoid setting up and tearing down camp every day, saving me both time and hassle—especially since the forecast called for rain for much of my trip.

I kept my meals simple and ate out about half the time. That usually meant bagels with cream cheese and a yogurt for breakfast, random snacks during the day (sometimes making a sandwich or heating up some soup or chili), and often grabbing a quick sub or some fast food for dinner before hitting a local brewery to sample their offerings. I ate cheaply in part so I could enjoy these brewery stops, which also gave me a great opportunity to research possible spots to camp each night. It also provided a bit of social time with locals (solo travel can get a bit lonely at times). If I was hungry later, I’d just heat up some soup or snack on something when I finally arrived at camp.

Here’s a quick (and poorly-shot) video on what I brought with me for this trip. I’ve also included the list below.

Other items you don’t want to forget

  • Headlamp
  • Towel(s) for showering
  • Camp/shower shoes
  • Ziploc bags (especially useful for repacking snack foods)
  • Can opener (though I try to only buy cans with pop-tops)
  • Bottle opener/corkscrew
  • Paracord

What to do with items that you can’t bring home

If you purchase items like a cooler or other food you don’t use, consider how you can best donate it at the end of your trip. If I’m staying at a developed campground, I’ll often donate my half-full propane canister and other camping supplies to the camp host to use or redistribute to underprepared campers. Another option is to look up a charity like Goodwill where you can donate items like a cooler; I usually look for one that’s on the way to the airport. With leftover food or beverages (and sometimes coolers), I usually donate them to panhandlers before I fly home.

Some recommendations for first-timers

If you’re not a seasoned camper, you can still have an excellent travel camping experience. I recommend easing yourself in on the first trip or two so you can get the hang of it. That means:

  • splitting your time between camping and staying in hotels
  • reserving every campground you’ll need in advance
  • choosing campgrounds that provide both flush toilets and showers
  • being ok with eating most meals out (in case you need or want to)
  • scheduling a more leisurely itinerary
  • bringing or buying some snacks so you always have something to eat

The goal here is to give yourself the best shot at enjoying the experience, even if you end up making some mistakes along the way. Once you get a trip or two under your belt, you’ll have a better idea of what works best for you and your own preferences and can modify from there.

More on what I bring for my “personal item”

Here’s an addendum video outlining what I bring on the plane with me as my “personal item.”

Have a good travel camping story?

Tell me in the comments!


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